Human Flower Project
Kansas Peonies—From Russia with Love
A purple heirloom passes over a continent, an ocean, to the American midwest and down the family line.
with a Russian heirloom
Photo: Mike Yoder
The Lawrence Journal-World ran a feature story about 83-year-old Rachel Senner and the peonies her German-Russian ancestors brought to Kansas.
Senner’s family (we’re not given her maiden name) brought peony plants with them “when they immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1874, two years before Custer’s Last Stand. Her relatives were German Mennonites who also brought red wheat to Kansas.”
Russian peonies still bloom in Kansas wherever the Mennonites and their descendants settled, towns like “Newton, Hillsboro and Gossel.” Volga Germans, who were Lutherans and Catholics, also settled in Kansas. Rachel Senner lives in a nursing home in Lawrence now and no longer gardens, but last week her nephew from Topeka brought her a red-violet peony, the bloom from a plant she’d passed along to him.
Russian-German settlements in Kansas
Map: Kansas State Historical Society
German ancestors, from Russia? I found this element of the story confusing until learning that many Kansas settlers were in fact German pacifists who had immigrated to Russia in the 18th century to escape the draft and acquire their own land. A century later, when the Russian czar revoked the settlers’ military exemption, many families were attracted to Kansas, lured by land agents from the Kansas Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads. The Kansas State Historical Society offers this excellent online exhibit of the Russian Germans.
Joseph and Clementina Hertel, Ellis County, Kansas
Photo: Kansas State Historical Society
“By 1879 about 12,000 Russian-Germans lived in the state. Russian-German farmers helped turn Kansas into the nation’s breadbasket. Unlike most other farmers new to Kansas, they were experienced at prairie-style agriculture. Mennonites often are credited with introducing Turkey red wheat to Kansas.” And peonies too.
Does anyone know if the Russian peonies of Kansas are Paeonia anomala? We understand that this variety originated in Western Russia but aren’t sure that Rachel Senner’s family flowers are of this type.
“The flower—it depends so much on people who have it, transmitting the story behind it to their children,” Senner said. That’s true. But the story—that is, the history of a people—“depends” on the flower also. A peony is proof there have been people with foresight. A peony in flower is incentive to learn who those people were.